Tom Spellman began collecting vintage packing labels, citrus labels, and fruit stickers for boxes about 40 years ago in California.
In 1980 he found himself sitting in a bare, wood paneled trailer office while working at a local California avocado and citrus nursery, so he decided to stick a few citrus fruit stickers to the walls. The citrus labels and stickers came from citrus crates.
Now 40 years later Spellman has a sticker collection of about 1,500 historical citrus crate labels. He has another 3,000 agricultural labels used on wood packing boxes. The custom fruit stickers and agricultural labels were made for packing fruits in boxes in 1885 to the mid 1950’s.
Spellman, who is also a member of the Citrus Label Society, a group of about 250 sticker collectors. These sticker collectors also enjoy sharing and preserving the history of these lithographed fruit stickers as a reminder of California’s rich citrus history.
The History of Citrus and Fruit Labels
Beginning in 1885 citrus crate labels were decorated and lithographed, then pasted with glue to the end of wooden shipping boxes. These fruit labels had colorful illustrations and graphics that made the boxes stand out with images of oranges, lemons, grapefruit, other fruits, the packer and shipper names. Between 1944 to 1955 there was a gradual conversion to preprinted cardboard boxes. The last fruit crate labels were printed by label printers in 1955, but some fruit co packers kept stacks of these fruit labels just in case the printed cardboard boxes didn’t catch on. Those labels are now vintage, collectible labels.
What Made These Product Labels So Cool?
Citrus labels are a historical poster of the west, if you will. They were used to market fruit produce by showing what was inside the box, while also promoting California, the scenery, placed and lifestyle from the 19th and 20th centuries. Today, they make a great snapshot of American life in the early 1900s and late 1800s.
Just imagine an American in New York city getting a box of naval oranges or lemons during a winter snowstorm, with the fruit label showing a beautiful, sunny California beach of sunset. It was truly something special for American’s living in that time period.
It is estimated that about 10,000 different fruit stickers were designed for California citrus packers. These numbers are based upon the number of brands in that time, and the multiple versions each company had made in the last 75 to 80 years.
The main things that makes these fruit stickers so valuable is the rarity, age, condition and the desirability. A nice California landscape or bold colorful western image is desirable. Stickers from the early days of label printing in 1890-1910 are very rare and most valuable. These rare, vintage stickers can cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000. Some labels and stickers can go into the $4,000 to $6,000 range.
Spellman says that the ‘holy grail’ of these vintage fruit stickers would be one of the first printed.